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Short Stirling

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The Stirling was the first of Bomber Command's four-engined bombers to enter service. However, its low service ceiling and the entry into service of the Lancaster and Halifax saw it moved to Transport Command. Operating as a glider tug the Short Stirling would be used during Operation Market Garden.

Quick Facts
Short Stirling side profile image
First flight
14th May 1939
Entered service
3rd August 1940
Total built

Front view
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Side view
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Rear view
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In July 1936 the Air Ministry issued Specification B.12/36, this requested a four-engined bomber which had a top speed of 230 mph, range of 3,000 miles and a bomb load of 8,000lb. It also had to be able to hold 24 troops. Of the aircraft submitted to the Air Ministry only two prototypes of both the Short S.29 and Supermarine Type 317 would be ordered. This was followed in 1938 by orders totalling 200 for the Short S.29. Before production began a half scale research aircraft made of wood, known as the Short S.31, was produced to assess the design and its aerodynamics and this flew on the 19th September 1938 at Rochester and would be used until 1943, performing over 100 flights. The Supermarine Type 317 would be cancelled after an air raid, in September 1940, destroyed the aircraft.

Powered by four 1,375-hp Bristol Hercules II engines, and with John Lankester Parker the pilot, and now called the Stirling, the prototype flew for the first time on the 14th May 1939. However, on landing a brake seized, which resulted in the aircraft being written off, as this caused the undercarriage to collapse. It would not be until the 3rd December 1939 that the second Stirling prototype flew, using the same engine as the first prototype and featuring changes to its undercarriage.

The 7th May 1940 saw the first Stirling Mk I production version fly. Housing a crew of seven, two pilots, navigator/bomb-aimer, flight engineer, wireless operator/gunner and two gunners, it was powered by four 1,595-hp Bristol Hercules XI engines. This gave the aircraft a top speed of 255 mph, range of 2,330 miles with a service ceiling of 16,500 ft. Armament was eight 0.303-in machine guns, located as follows, two in the nose turret, two in the dorsal turret and four in the rear turret, with a bomb load of 14,000lb. The Royal Air Force started to take delivery of their new aircraft on the 3rd August 1940 when they started to equip No. 7 Squadron, RAF Leeming, which had been reformed on the 1st August 1940.

Production of the Stirling would then be disrupted when on the 15th August 1940, during the Battle of Britain (10th July 1940 - 31st October 1940), the Shorts factory in Rochester is bombed by the Luftwaffe, meaning production of the type suffers for the next three months. So it would be another six months before the Stirling performed its first operational sortie, when three from No. 7 Squadron took part in a night raid on oil storage tanks in Rotterdam, Netherlands on the 10th February 1941.

A Stirling Mk II powered by 1,600-hp Wright Cyclone R-2600 engines was to be built in Canada and despite an order for 140 of the type only a small number were produced.

The Stirling Mk III was the next variant and was powered by four 1,650-hp Bristol Hercules XVI engines, it also featured a redesigned dorsal turret and a few changes were made internally. The aircraft had a top speed of 270 mph, range of 2,010 miles with a service ceiling of 17,000 ft. Armament was eight 0.303-in machine-guns, two each in the nose and dorsal turrets and four in the rear turret. Bomb load was 14,000lb.

One of the main drawbacks of the Short Stirling was its low service ceiling as a result of its thick wing, although it did also have a positive effect of giving the aircraft an impressive turn rate and radius, earning the nickname 'the fighter-bomber' due to its manoeuvrability. This meant that on operations alongside the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster, which could fly higher, the Stirling was more susceptible to enemy fighters and flak. So when the Halifax and Lancaster started to enter service in larger numbers the Stirling was to be used for other tasks, So, on the 8th September 1944, No. 149 Squadron used the type on its last operational sortie for Bomber Command, a raid against targets in Le Havre, France, with the aircraft’s main role after this being that of a glider tug for Transport Command. At its peak, thirteen squadrons were operational with Bomber Command.

As a result of its new duties the Stirling Mk IV would be produced. This would have it dorsal and nose gun turrets removed, the necessary equipment for glider towing added and a new exit at the back of the fuselage for the 20 paratroopers the aircraft could hold to jump from. When being used as a glider tug it could tow a pair of Airspeed Horsas or one General Aircraft Hamilcar glider. It would be No. 299 Squadron, RAF Stoney Cross who received the first of the Stirling Mk IVs to enter service on the 23rd January 1944, replacing their Lockheed Venturas. The Stirling took part in operations on D-Day, 6th June 1944, and Operation Market Garden (17th September 1944 - 25th September 1944). The Stirling Mk V would be the last production version and was an unarmed transport aircraft.

When production ended in late 1944 a total of 2,371 Short Stirlings had been made, completing 18,440 sorties, and a dozen saw service after the Second World War (1939 - 1945) as civil aircraft in Belgium.

Three Short Stirlings from a Operational Conversion Unit ©

Technical Details

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Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
Stirling Mk I 255 mph 2,330 miles 16,500 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
14,000lb bombs
Stirling Mk I side profile image
Stirling Mk II Three prototypes powered by 1,600-hp Wright Cyclone R-2600 engines.
Stirling Mk III

270 mph

2,010 miles

17,000 ft

eight 0.303-in machine-guns
14,000lb bombs
Stirling Mk IV Glider tug and troop transport aircraft.
Stirling Mk V Transport aircraft.


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See This Aircraft

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

Stirling Mk III (R) Royal Air Force Museum, London

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